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Some Analysis of the 2009 Burlington IRV Election

by Terry Bouricius // Published March 6, 2009
Burlington's instant runoff voting (IRV) election went off without a hitch in 2009, the same as in 2006. If anything, it was even more successful. Interestingly, the city spent almost nothing on voter education this time (and less than 25 cents per voter in 2006). In 2006, for example, the city mailed a postcard to every residence explaining the new voting method, hung banners of busy streets announcing IRV's upcoming use, inserted a sample ballot with IRV explanation in the daily newspaper, and assigned a city employee to each polling place just to answer any questions about IRV. None of those things were done this time, and instead of having 99.90% of ballots cast in the IRV election being valid (the rate in 2006), fully 99.95% of the ballots in the IRV race were valid this time. So, people who worry that IRV is "too hard" for voters, or that voter education has to be expensive, are simply wrong according to the evidence.

The polls closed at 7:00 p.m. on March 3rd, and at approximately 8:15 p.m. that night the IRV tally had been completed and the winner announced. In the initial count of first choices, no candidate received a majority. As the ward results were posted on a large screen in the auditoriumin of city hall, incumbent mayor Progressive Bob Kiss had a plurality lead as the first five wards were posted. but when the votes from the final two, more conservative-leaning, New North End wards reported, the lead swung to Republican councilor Kurt Wright. With all first choices tallied, Wright was in the lead with 33% (2951), Kiss was in second with 29% (2585), Democratic city councilor Andy Montroll had 23% (2063), Independent Dan Smith was in fourth place with 15% (1306), Green Party candidate James Simpson (35) and write-ins (36) combined were less than 1%.

Since there was no initial majority winner, the instant runoff tally followed immediately. Since a record of every ballot's set of rankings was generated by the optical scan voting machines, it took less than a second for the computer to complete the IRV tally. Note that all of these individual ballot records are posted on the city's web site (http:/www.burlingtonvotes.org) so that anybody who wishes can manually, or with a spreadsheet, verify the IRV tally for themselves.

In the first round of the runoff, all of the write-ins, as well as Simpson and Smith were defeated, since none of them had a mathematical possibility of winning. Democrat Andy Montroll was the biggest beneficiary of the alternate choices of voters who had ranked these eliminated candidates first. Bob Kiss received the second most, and Wright received the fewest. This narrowed the gap between Wright and Kiss, but left Wright ahead, and Montroll still in third place.

In the final runoff round, Montroll (now in last place) was defeated, and his supporters favored Kiss over Wright by nearly two to one. This catapulted Kiss into the lead and victory. Among voters expressing a preference between these two finalists, 52.5% (4313) favored Kiss and 48.5% (4061) favored Wright. In addition, four ballots were spoiled and 602 did not indicate any preference either way between Kiss and Wright (sitting out the final runoff).

Wright and some of his supporters have complained in the news media, talk radio and Internet about this outcome, suggesting that maybe the candidate with the 33% plurality in the initial count should have won. But IRV clearly worked as intended to avoid the "spoiler" dynamic. Wright has since partially backed off his complaint and said he has no intention of challenging or seeking to overturn the IRV method, but may seek a recount just to make clear how the system works.

Since all of the ballot data is made publicly available by the city, it is possible to run a variety of "what if" scenarios. For example, What if Montroll had been more popular and had made it into the final runoff against Wright instead of Kiss? If we remove Kiss from the tally altogether (as if he hadn't run), and transfer all of those ballots to the next choice indicated by each voter, we again have no majority winner in the initial round, but Montroll would also have defeated Wright in the final runoff tally.

While Sore losers in Burlington are complaining about sour grapes, instant runoff voting has proven itself again as a bulwark of democracy.